On Friday’s Carb Day practice ahead of the 2020 Indy 500, there was a fairly uncomfortable moment where former driver and current commentator Paul Tracy drew attention to Danica Patrick’s shoes. He referred to Patrick’s bright, NBC-yellow heels as “sexy shoes” twice before stating that he has “always been a sucker for sexy shoes.” It seems as good a time as any to remind you folks out there to just let women do their damn jobs.
(The full exchange was captured on Twitter, which you can view here. On Saturday, Tracy also responded to a tweet from journalist Jenna Fryer that read “Hi Jenna I have a Dr degree in love ...” followed by a heart emoji.)
Patrick’s response was a laugh before she attempted to move change to conversation to the brand of the shoes, noting that they’re Fendi and not Louboutin shoes. For many women who have been subject to an uncomfortable situation in their professional lives, Patrick’s move was familiar. As a woman, one of the most inoffensive ways to respond to unsolicited comments on your appearance is to just smile and try to talk about something else.
Subtle or ‘friendly’ workplace sexism is still very prevalent in just about all societies around the world—be that expecting your female coworkers to take on the burden of “housekeeping” tasks like taking notes or making vaguely sexual comments about their appearance. Women are still disproportionately policed when it comes to their clothing, and women are subject to their professional work being judged on the basis of appearance. It’s an ingrained part of our culture, something that we start honing as soon as we tell young girls that exposed shoulders in the classroom will be too distracting to their male peers, who are often struggling because of other sociocultural problems.
Young women who have been subject to disparaging comments throughout their lives—both in school and in work—are five times more likely to suffer from depression than their peers who have not been harassed. As per the Spokane Journal, “Women who experience sexism are more likely to report higher levels of stress, more missed days of work, higher rates of working when unwell, and lower levels of productivity.” Overall, women who are subject to sexism—like unwanted sexual attention—at work report distress, lower occupational well-being, a lack of “fitting in,” and even dread at coming to work in the morning.
While times are changing, motorsport is still very much considered a “man’s world” in which women are viewed more as a decorative object than a legitimate participant (see: “Gendered Performances in a Male-Dominated Subculture” by Karen Lumsden). Tracy’s comments on Patrick’s shoes are indicative of that mindset and also illustrate the change that we need to see.
Let me give you some personal examples from the paddock. I’ve been called “almost jailbait” by a race series-commissioned photographer who, after I expressed my disinterest, dated a girl that also dyed her hair red and wore heart-shaped sunglasses. I’ve had crew members that I’ve only spoken to a handful of times ask me why I haven’t sent them nudes yet. I’ve been called a slut by fellow journalists, both for posting photos of myself in my New Year’s Eve dress and for posting selfies with my dog. I’ve been undermined by men on press trips who think it’s impossible I could have met Mario Andretti and understood his importance to the greater motorsport world as a whole. It’s frustrating to do an interview with someone who assumes you have no idea what you’re talking about.
That doesn’t count the shitty experiences I’ve had as a fan, or the experiences my colleagues have had, or the way the automotive industry in general views women. I’m not the only person who has gone through that kind of objectification—but many of the stories I’ve heard from others are not my stories to tell.
And, no, Patrick’s risqué photo shoots and promotional material in the past do not mean she somehow ‘deserves’ sexual comments in the present. The thing about sexism is that it’s a power play, where the purpose is turning a woman into a one-dimensional thing. If a woman wears a bikini because she wants to feel sexy, she is not objectifying herself; she’s still three-dimensional enough to weigh her options and make a choice. If a guy never lets go of the fact that he’s seen her in the bikini and only ever treats her like she’s wearing a bikini, that’s where the problem sets in.
Patrick decided that she wanted to take sexy promotional photos. It was her decision. It doesn’t make her somehow “less” worthy of sincerity or deserving of sexualization now. A woman’s choice at one point does not dictate the rest of her life. That would be like saying that, just because I had red hair at one point, I can no longer ever make the decision to be blonde. That would be like saying that, just because I like a nice glass of wine at the end of the day, I should be treated like I’m drunk in the office even when I’m not drinking. That’s not how life works. Context changes.
And, in many cases, it doesn’t matter what a woman is wearing. I’ve been treated like an object while wearing no makeup, two hoodies, a knee-length poncho, galoshes, and a hat to hide my ratty-ass hair. If I decide to dress nicer, that’s my own business. If I’m on the job with cute shoes and a full face of makeup, it’s because I’m trying not to look like a scrub and because I like collecting cute shoes. I’m still working. I’m still not looking for unsolicited comments on my appearance.
Most people who use the internet have probably had this whole “inequality” thing hammered into them enough times that it’s probably getting old, but trust me: it’s exhausting for me, too! When I’m on the job, I really don’t want to be dancing through hoops trying to both avoid sexism and politely handle it when it happens because if I call it out, I might get in trouble. It’s dumb. It’s inefficient. The less folks stop being weird to women, the less we’ll have to keep talking about it.
It’s real easy. Just close your mouth and let women do their jobs. We’ll let you know if we need you.
UPDATE: There seems to be a little confusion, so let me be clear. There’s a significant difference between acknowledging and complimenting someone’s clothing choice and overtly sexualizing them.
Appropriate: “Those are cool/bright/fun shoes!” In this case, even the acknowledgement that the shoes match Pagenaud’s car would have been fine.
Inappropriate: “Those are sexy shoes. I have a thing for sexy shoes.”
It is okay to comment on a garment’s properties (color, texture, pattern, etc.). It is not okay to project your own sexual desire onto someone via that garment. The fact that a lot of people seem confused about how to avoid sexualizing women is a little concerning, so here’s a handy guide about what it’s appropriate to say to your female coworker.